Current Affairs Rhetoric/Composition

pluralism and the nonmodern, nonliberal society

In a New York Times editorial, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” Mark Lilla, a Columbia history professor, makes an argument that runs against much of the discourse I hear from the academic left. I am curious what others think of it. In part I’m writing this to work through my own thoughts on the matter. All of this stuff here is exploratory and rudimentary.

So Lilla writes the following, specifically targeting teachers and the press:

the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country.

And then later I believe this is his core thesis:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)

Having attended a panel on campus on Friday on “healing the divide” after the election (the title was created at the beginning of the semester, btw), I don’t think Lilla’s argument would have been widely popular there, or indeed in many of the academic communities in which I’ve worked for really my entire adult life. With only a modest caveat about generalizations, I would say that quite clearly one of the expressed goals of pedagogy and scholarship (broadly speaking, but certainly in the humanities) has been to teach students not to be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. Really the greatest tension I typically hear around this objective is simultaneously recognizing that one is unavoidably all these things, so that complicates teaching the mitigation of these problems.

My non-expert understanding of liberalism is that, in its Classical, 18th century-Enlightenment sense, it was grounded on notions of freedom: free speech, freedom of religion, free markets, secular government, and so on. It’s one of the forms of government that arises with modernity. In its later 19th-20th century forms as Social Liberalism, the concerns turn more toward equality. The notion I float in the title of a “nonmodern, nonliberal society” is an obvious gesture toward Latour. It would suggest that the ontological principles on which liberalism is based are misunderstood. What are the ontological principles? I suppose you could look at the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence. To be clear, when I say these truths are misunderstood, I don’t mean that they are untrue but rather that we have a limited and problematic understanding of how these ontological conditions are produced and maintained. (After all the Declaration asserts that they were given to us by a “Creator.”) I’ll circle back to that.

Similarly I am employing a non-expert notion of pluralism to mean accepting that people in a community will have different values and objectives. The one common value/objective a pluralist society requires is that its members will not seek to impose their values or objectives on one another. In part, learning this value might emerge from a practical understanding of the impossibility of common values. It’s a game of whack-a-mole. Differences always arise.

What is necessary however is an ability to agree on common practices. Continuing my headlong tumble into areas in which I have little expertise, I think about this in terms of a non-zero sum game and cooperative gaming. In such a scenario, I do not need to share values or even objectives with my partners. As long as I agree that our actions are desirable for me (i.e., consonant with my own values and objectives) then our collective agreement to undertake this action is a benefit to me, even if the others are doing it for different reasons. Of course it only works with the basic agreement on pluralism, which I don’t think we have in  our society right now, so this post shouldn’t be taken in any way as a suggestion for an immediate course of action (don’t worry, I didn’t really imagine you were reading it that way; it’s more of a disclaimer). In no way do I mean to suggest that this is easy. We all still have values and goals, and when those are very divergent, as they are now, mutually beneficial practices, or even tit-for-tat compromises, can be almost unachievable. In such scenarios we often begin by trying to appeal to common values but they may not exist or be common in name only. That’s why I think focusing on practices can be useful, and the more detailed and specific the practices are the better it is, as the lines back to values and goals become fuzzier. Developing, agreeing, and abiding to common practices can be a foundation for moving forward with people with whom you disagree.

Turning back to where I began with Lilla… I think he is arguing that we should minimize identity politics and emphasize our collectivity over our differences. I would look at it a little differently. Perhaps by “Americans” we mean to name a group of actors gathered around a series of matters of concern (as Lilla puts it, “issues that affect a vast majority”). Is it possible to explore those concerns and build practices we can agree will address them without shared values?

7 replies on “pluralism and the nonmodern, nonliberal society”

This rings true to me. An extreme example: An old climbing buddy and I used to spend most of our trips arguing values, philosophy, and politics. We rarely agreed, but we could maintain mutual respect and even enjoy our arguments because when we were together our actions centered around common goals, activities, practices—specifically, not getting each other killed while climbing rocks and mountains. I came to graduate school expecting I could similarly enjoy political argument, but it never really happened. Such argument was always taken very personally. I chalked up to the fact that there was no material or “practical” context for such argument—-just the discursive space of the grad class. A discursive space without practices is a bad place to be.

The space of social media likewise provides no common goals or activities, just a space in which people talk. However, in other digital spaces—e.g., online shooter games—I’ve noticed people can banter and disagree about politics without forming a strongly antagonistic relationship because they have a common ground in playing the game itself. I know you’re using “practices” in a much broader way than I am with these examples, but I suppose what I’m taking away from your post is that it would be nice if the 300 million people in this country could start looking at the country itself as a cooperative game or a climb or whatever—a practice—and not just a space where people talk without basic common goals and activities. That’s never gonna happen, though.


A quick thought on “identity politics”: the identity of the identity politics messenger is too often overlooked (there’s a link to rhetorical delivery here, I suppose). The fact is that a non-trivial plurality of identity politics texts circulating at any given moment are not written by down-and-out blacks or Nahua day laborers but by white people with elite(ish) backgrounds. Speaking on behalf of the dispossessed is often done with so much glee and self-righteousness that it makes me skeptical of motives (and I’m predisposed to agree with the message). The last thing we need is another Ivy League professor or Manhattan journalist telling others to check their privilege.


Identity politics is taken to mean subdivisions within America, hence inherently divisive and destructive to policy forming. The American identity is special in that it’s a uniting distinction. Anything that group agrees to is politically accomplishable. Nationalism is an important exception.


I think that’s close to Lilla’s point: that all voters in the US can be included within the identity of “American.” However, I disagree with that, as I note above. All identities are disjunctive. Even without getting overly postmodern about it, I think I can say that I am not identical to myself. I just think about that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: the Judean People’s Front, the People’s Front of Judea, the Popular Front of Judea… splitter! So I don’t think identity works as a basis for forming agreement. Sure we can be pseudo-democratic, take a vote (as Americans) and elect Trump, but such results only demonstrate the disjunctive function of identity. We acted as Americans and end up more divided than ever. Indeed in this election, nationalism became an identity formation designed to divide Americans and oppose them to one another. And really both democrats and republicans used that rhetorical strategy.

Maybe it’s hyperbole to say we’re more divided now than at any time since the Civil War. Maybe we were just as divided during the Civil Rights/Vietnam War era of the 50s and 60s. The only way we’ve ever accomplished a fiction of an American identity is by excluding significant portions of humans living in the country. Right now the shifting demographics of the country, plus the economic pressures of post-industrial global capitalism, have intensified affects around those differences. That’s why I’d say the only thing “we” share are disagreements.


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